Girdwood fire crews conducted their first-ever exercise Wednesday focused on finding and rescuing people from avalanche-buried vehicles on the Seward Highway, alongside other groups of first responders in the area.

Girdwood Fire and Rescue Chief Michelle Weston said about 35 people participated in the two-hour exercise, which began at noon near the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities yard in Girdwood. Four dummies were buried in snow-covered vehicles, in a roughly 100-foot area of snow as wide as one lane of the Seward.

Girdwood responders simulate digging trapped motorists from a Seward Highway avalanche in a Wednesday, March 6, 2019 exercise. (From Girdwood Fire and Rescue)

“They simulated the avalanche debris by burying a number of cars and some dummies in the cars and then covering them with snow,” Weston said. “There was a number of debris [piles] over the vehicles, so they had to dig through at least 2 or 3 feet of debris to get to the vehicle.”

Two ambulances and two rescue crews from Girdwood Fire and Rescue participated, Weston said, with DOTPF heavy road-machinery teams available to help remove the snow. Anchorage police were also on-hand, along with search-dog teams and a RECCO search transmitter — which tracks signals from special reflectors worn by some people in avalanche areas — contributed by the Alyeska Resort.

Girdwood responders simulate digging trapped motorists from a Seward Highway avalanche in a Wednesday, March 6, 2019 exercise. (From Girdwood Fire and Rescue)

Some but not all of the “victims” were ruled to have survived the exercise, Weston said.

“We did practice removing a live victim; we did simulate someone who was not a fatality,” Weston said. “The other thing you have to look at is if the vehicles are crushed, and how you’re going to extricate someone if they’re a living patient.”

A January rock fall along the Seward near Mile 111, just south of McHugh Creek, left electrician Jason Carter severely injured and state crews blocking part of the highway in the area. Weston said no cars have been hit by avalanches on the Seward in recent memory, but recalled a pair of avalanches that stranded motorists on the highway in the late 1990s.

“People were trapped in their cars between the avalanches south of Girdwood and we had to evacuate them using helicopters,” she said. “Those people were super-lucky because those cars were between the avalanches.”

Weston said DOTPF staff in Girdwood, who are using a helicopter-slung device called a Daisy Bell for avalanche mitigation, recommended the exercise about a month ago. Rescue crews now plan to repeat it on an annual basis.

Girdwood responders simulate digging trapped motorists from a Seward Highway avalanche in a Wednesday, March 6, 2019 exercise. (From Girdwood Fire and Rescue)

“It was a really good exercise, so we were really glad DOT had the idea and invited us,” Weston said.

Girdwood Fire and Rescue urges travelers along the Seward to be aware of roadside avalanche call boxes set up in avalanche areas. Those driving through the Turnagain Pass area should also be prepared for spotty cellphone reception in the vicinity and prepare for winter conditions.

Weston also urged anyone traveling in the region’s backcountry avalanche areas to carry avalanche beacons, and be aware of avalanche and snow conditions posted by authorities such as the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.

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